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Fashion and Its Significance in Puerto Rican Heritage

Vibrant colors, bright whites, and flaring skirts all paint a picture of traditional Puerto Rican fashion. Despite the trends that unite traditional Puerto Rico clothing, there are two distinct styles—Jíbaro and Bomba. Both reflect native Taíno traditions as well as outside influences.

Throughout time, traditional fashion has been an important aspect of Puerto Rican history and family traditions.

If you have Puerto Rican ancestors, traditional clothing can provide powerful insights into your family’s cultural heritage. Exploring the history and traditions surrounding Puerto Rican fashion can help you appreciate the significance of traditional clothing. 

The Indigenous Taíno People

The Taíno were the indigenous people of Puerto Rico and the first people encountered when Europeans arrived. While their ancestors originated in South America, the unique Taíno culture developed in the Caribbean. 

Prior to European arrival, the indigenous Taíno people had their own unique clothing traditions that were influenced by their culture and the island’s climate. Fashion and clothing in Taíno culture bore significant symbolism. Jewelry, body paint, and garments projected a person’s social and religious status in society.

A Taino necklace.
A Taino necklace on display in the Louvre. Image credit by Sailko, licensed under the  Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.

Men’s Fashion in Taíno Culture

Possibly because of the island’s heat and humidity, Taíno men simply went without clothing. However, body paint and jewelry (including necklaces, bracelets, and earrings) were common and often bore meaning related to religion or social rank. Materials from rocks and bones to feathers and shells were often used to create their ornate jewelry pieces. 

Women’s Fashion in Taíno Culture

While men typically wore no clothing, women started wearing skirts called “naguas” when they reached adolescence or got married. The length of naguas was determined by social status, with higher-status women wearing full-length skirts and lower-class women wearing shorter skirts. 

In addition to naguas, women also wore body paint and jewelry in similar fashion to men. They also typically wore their hair long.

a young boy plays a guitar

The Iconic Look of Jíbaro Culture

With the arrival of the Spanish in Puerto Rico, things began to change. The Spaniards wore their traditional clothing, and cultures began to mix.

“Jíbaro” refers to farmers or countryside people in Puerto Rico. As Jíbaro culture and clothing developed, both were heavily influenced by the Spanish arrivals. This formed a new prominent culture, blending native traditions with Spanish influences. Puerto Ricans today are proud of their Jíbaro heritage, and it is recognized as an iconic part of their culture.

As far as clothing goes, Jíbaro fashion strongly resembled the famous Spanish flare. Brilliant colors, flowing fabrics, and flowers made for a distinct and celebratory appearance.

Men’s Clothing in Jíbaro Fashion

 A woman in jibaro dress

In Jíbaro culture, men traditionally wore a simple cotton shirt and pants. Straw hats completed the look. Most men went without shoes, likely for the sake of comfort and convenience.

Some men also wore a colorful sash around their waist. When Jíbaro fashion is used for performances, the apparel often includes a matching neck kerchief. 

Women’s Clothing in Jíbaro Fashion

Women’s fashion tended to be more colorful than men’s fashion in Jíbaro culture. Vibrant, flowing skirts were worn with white blouses, which often left the shoulders and neck exposed. 

Women often decorated their hair with flowers or headscarves. Large pieces of jewelry and hoop earrings added the final touch. Like men, women often went without shoes.

Bomba and Its Rich Heritage

Bomba is a form of music and dance that developed as a result of the slaves brought over from Africa. African and Puerto Rican traditions blended to form Bomba. Today, it’s used to celebrate African and Puerto Rican heritage. 

While Jíbaro clothing had a distinctive Spanish flare, Bomba clothing tended to be a bit more subdued in nature. White was the dominant color, with brighter colors used as an accent.

Men’s Clothing in Bomba

In Bomba traditions, men often wore a colored shirt with white pants or a full white suit. Men could also be seen wearing a straw or white hat.

Women’s Clothing in Bomba

In contrast with the brightly colored Jíbaro dresses and skirts, Bomba skirts were often white with colorful accents. Blue and red accents were particularly common. Petticoats were used for a fashionable silhouette. Women typically left their hair unadorned or wore a turban.

a young woman wearing bomba-style dress.

Modern Puerto Rico Clothing

With the rise of global trade and communication, cultures around the world have blended and adapted at an accelerated pace. As a result, modern Puerto Rico clothing is largely similar to other Western countries. However, there are a few distinctive features even today.

One example is the guayabera, a traditional men’s shirt. These buttoned shirts, which are loose fitting with slits on either side, are still popular. Other examples of more traditional clothing still worn today are Pavas or Panama hats, both variations of a straw hat. 

A man wears a puerto rican panama hat

Celebrations and special occasions also tend to bring out Puerto Rico’s fashion history. At an event like a wedding or a Quinceañera, you might find people dressed in traditional attire. 

Now that you know a bit more about the history behind Puerto Rican fashion, try searching FamilySearch Memories to find examples in your family photos. It might help you understand your family legacy. You can also try using Picture My Heritage to see what you would have looked like sporting traditional Puerto Rican clothing.

Source: Family Search

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